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What You Need to Know about SARS


In the months since severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, infected humans, the international medical community has made tremendous strides in learning how to identify and test for the condition and how to keep it from spreading. It’s likely that the coming months will bring even more understanding about SARS, as researchers around the world build on the existing body of knowledge. 

SARS is what’s called a corona virus. Corona viruses have a halo or crown-like appearance when you look at them under a microscope. The viruses are a common cause of upper respiratory illness in humans. 

The first known case of SARS was in Guangdong Province in China. That first patient sold snakes and birds in one of the many animal markets in the province. An article in the New York Times describes a market that’s typical in the area: “In hundreds of cramped stalls that stink of blood and guts, wholesale food vendors tend to veritable zoos that will grace Guangdong Province’s tables: snakes, chickens, cats, turtles, badgers, frogs. And, in summer, sometimes rats, too.” The article goes on to say that the animals’ cages are stacked on top of each other, and then later used as seats, card tables and eating surfaces.

So far, nobody has figured out how SARS infected the first human being. But one theory is that it initially passed from animals to humans in the crowded food markets of Guangdong Province. Early studies of SARS patients have shown that a high percentage of them were in the catering profession.

Wherever and however it began, SARS has become a concern to people all over the world. According to the World Health Organization, as of mid-May, the SARS virus had killed nearly 600 people and infected more than 7,500 in about 30 countries. The United States had reported 64 likely cases and no deaths.

Who’s most at risk?
SARS is spread through close, person-to-person contact. Close contact would include things like kissing, embracing, sharing eating utensils and drinking from the same glass, performing a physical examination, etc.

The people most at risk for getting SARS are healthcare workers who are taking care of people who have SARS, and family members of or people who share living quarters with people who have the condition. Now that the condition appears to be under control in most countries, including the U.S. and Canada, it’s safe to say that most Americans are not currently at risk, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization remain highly vigilant.

How can you tell if you have SARS?
SARS typically begins with a fever of 100.4 F. or higher. Often, there are accompanying chills and body aches. Sometimes, people experience respiratory difficulties from the beginning, although usually those symptoms don’t appear right away. After 2 to 7 days, a severe cough usually develops. The blood doesn’t get enough oxygen, and 10 to 20 percent of patients will need to be placed on a ventilator.

It’s hard to predict how the illness will affect any one individual. There are cases of people who were fairly young and very healthy and fit who died of SARS, yet most people do recover. Recovery can be long and difficult due to the weakness the illness causes.

Right now, the CDC recommends that patients with SARS receive the type of treatment they would receive for a serious, “atypical pneumonia.” Since SARS is a virus, practitioners in some countries have given patients anti-viral medication, but the CDC states that early studies have not shown any real benefit from this type of treatment.

CDC has urged people not to overreact
The CDC has urged the public not to cancel travel plans this summer, and says it’s not necessary to quarantine travelers from countries where SARS is widespread unless they have symptoms, such as fever or cough.

Now that the medical community is tuned in to identifying potential SARS cases and quarantining people who are likely to have it, it’s safe to believe that SARS is an illness that’s under control in most parts of the world.

If you’d like more information about SARS, visit the CDC’s Frequently Asked Questions page.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The New York Times, 15 May 2003; The World Health Organization
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